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In Bhutan, a 'mock' poll for democracy's uninitiated

To prepare for the country's first elections next year, Bhutanese queued up on Saturday for a trial run.

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Tshering Pem looked a little bewildered as she stood in line at a polling booth in Thimphu, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. She had never voted in an election before and was not sure that she wanted to.

"I want the king to rule," said the housewife, as she fiddled shyly with her vote card.

On this occasion, however, Mrs. Pem's vote did not count. Neither did the votes of thousands of other Bhutanese who, on Saturday, waited in neat lines across the country. Their ballots – the country's first national poll – went toward mock polls organized in preparation for the kingdom's first parliamentary elections in June 2008.

Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between India and China, has been ruled by a hereditary monarchy since 1907. But after a century of untrammeled power, its monarchy has decided to impose democracy – even though many of its subjects say they do not want it.

It is an odd situation, a king struggling to hand over his power, but then Bhutan is one of the most extraordinary countries in the world.

Known by its people as Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, because of its violent storms, Bhutan is a gloriously unspoiled land of thick forests and misty mountains dotted with ancient monasteries.

Here, the national sport is archery, which reached its apex in England six centuries ago. Every building is built in a handsome, centuries-old style, with intricately carved wooden windows, which means that even the airport makes visitors gaze. There are no traffic lights.

Most Bhutanese – though they accessorize with Nike sneakers and Ray Ban shades – dress in national attire: the gho, a baggy, wraparound robe worn with knee-length socks, for men; the kira, a floor-length dress with a jacket for women. No one in the kingdom owned a television set until 1999; the Internet made its debut a year later. And Bhutan is the only country in the world where smoking is banned.


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